The term “dive bar” conjures up a host of not-so-great images: tired furnishings and even more weathered patrons, sad little decorative touches from a well-meaning owner, lipstick on the glasses even though only men are at the bar.
Sure, there are plenty of places exactly like that — you can pick them out based on the lack of windows — but many of these alleged dive bars also boast plenty of charms. The most notable? Cheap, satisfying burgers.
Winnowing the possibilities down to just three dive bar burger standouts wasn’t easy. Arteries got clogged. But in the end, this trio made an impression, and not just the greasy kind.
Situated on Rice St. just south of Hwy. 36, this modest bar and eatery is surrounded by industrial buildings — including the compellingly named Hess Hair Milk — and the parking lot is bustling by 10am.
Like any well-worn neighborhood bar, Dean’s offers karaoke nights, loud bands, pull tabs, and prime booth space. A few years ago, the place came under new ownership, and a couple old-timers there waxed nostalgic about a grubby, darker tavern atmosphere, but they had to admit, the cleanup improved the food. Plus, there are occasional taco specials, and you can’t beat a $1 bar taco.
Unless, that is, you can offer a pretty decent burger ($7 for a basic), and Dean’s works hard to make that happen. Although the place tries to differentiate itself with hot dogs, especially its Coney dogs, the burger was surprisingly tasty, given its regulation-type shape. Anyone who’s worked a fast food line knows the dimensions of a frozen hamburger patty, with its neatly pressed edges and perfect circumference, and although Dean’s had the same look, it was far better than anything off a griller conveyor belt.
Granted, this sounds like faint praise, but when talking about affordable bar food, let’s face it, expectations get lowered. Chances are that a James Beard Award winner isn’t going to pop into Dean’s and put duck fat and truffle flecks into the burgers. Instead, what bar denizens want is a nicely prepared burger that doesn’t make them joke about hockey pucks or regret leaving their Maalox at home. So, given the somewhat moderate expectation level for bar food, Dean’s rises a few notches above that. Also, they serve their burgers in plastic baskets, and that always evokes a salt-of-the-earth feel somehow.
Dean’s Tavern, 1968 Rice St, St. Paul, MN 55113; 651.488.6868
Adrian’s Bar & Grill
Another fan of plastic baskets, Adrian’s is squished between The Town Hall Tap and the Parkway Theater / Pepito’s on 48th and Chicago. It’s a sliver of a place, with just two rows of booths and a modest bar.
Some Adrian’s enthusiasts believe that this is where the true jucy lucy originated, but owner Jim Pratt calls BS on that. “Nah, we just stole it from Matt’s,” he says, with a shrug. “The 5-8 Club stole it too. But I will say that we improved on it.” The addition, he says, is a second piece of cheese.
For the regular hamburger ($4.75), though, there are no spiffy additions, just a slightly greasy patty on a white bread bun, with a few chips thrown on the side like an afterthought. Add a few pickle slices, and you’ve got yourself some mighty affordable bar fare.
What makes Adrian’s burger a little unique is the aroma — there’s something just a bit meatier in it, as if the cook was grilling on his Weber out back instead of flipping them in the kitchen. Perhaps it’s the smaller space, catching the scent of the many burgers delivered at a rapid pace, or maybe it’s the VFW-meets-backyard-grillout atmosphere, but it would feel wrong to opt for a grilled cheese or even a BLT here. Go burger or go home.
Adrian’s Bar & Grill, 4812 Chicago Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55417; 612.824.4011
The Rail Station Bar & Grill
The largest of the three beer-and-burger joints profiled here, The Rail Station seems like an institution — or, at least, a permanent fixture. Similar to the others, and to dive bars everywhere, the place has enough of a loyal clientele that most patrons look at the door whenever someone walks in. This can be disconcerting if you’re new, but that first-date awkward vibe doesn’t last long, fortunately.
Also, it doesn’t happen at all if you show up during the busier times, like in the midst of a ball game, karaoke, or a craft beer tasting (the bar recently added a bevvy of draft lines, 40 total). One of the larger burger havens in the cities, the restaurant features a strange configuration for its dining — splitting the tables into two distinct sections, with a narrow sliver of bar between them. But the logistical challenges don’t seem to bother the servers, who seem to be telepathic. No sooner does a beer threaten to reach its sudsy endpoint than it’s whisked away for another.
That level of efficiency is balanced by its basic “North American burger” ($7.50). A half- pound of meat, grilled expertly, the burger might be a little more flattened than some burger connoisseurs prefer, but it’s nicely seasoned and has a luxurious decadence to it. Diners take their time, watching the servers speed around the room, glancing toward the door occasionally, taking another bite. Unsullied by extra ingredients (unless you ask for some), the burger is just patty-plus-bun, the way your grandpa might make it during a summer barbecue. Or the way he might put it on a plate if he worked as a cook at a dive bar.
The Rail Station Bar & Grill, 3675 Minnehaha Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55406; 612.729.3663
In general, to call a place a “dive bar” doesn’t have to be an insult — instead, that term can refer to a cozy neighborhood place where you can get a cheap burger, an even cheaper beer, and some chatty company. The trio of eateries profiled here are worthy of being seen with that lens, but we certainly acknowledge that they’re only three of many decent dives in the metro. So feel free to chime in with your favorite in the comments section. Together, we can elevate dive bars to their rightful place… one burger at a time.